Q&A with with Alan Mikhail, author of ‘God’s Shadow’

His book about Sultan Selim I restores the Ottomans to their place in the making of the modern world and as a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company and Mark Bennington
Author Alan Mikhail appears with his new book, “God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World.”

Selim I served as leader of the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520. But in that short time he transformed the Islamic world and set the stage for international power struggles that still hold sway. Yale University professor Alan Mikhail spoke about why the sultan deserves to be remembered as a crucial player in world history.

Q: How was the Ottoman Empire at the center of the world?

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the popes are all obsessed with the Ottomans and Islam and see them as a threat. And why is Columbus looking for an alternative route to Asia at this time? It’s to get around Islam – the lands of the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim powers. 

We’ve missed this story. Part of what I want to do in the book is restore the Ottomans to the tale of the making of the modern world – the voyages over the Atlantic Ocean, the rise of Protestantism, and the rise of various states, and the rise of capitalism. The Ottomans have a hand in each of those processes.

Q: Why focus on Selim I? 

Selim I achieved the largest geographical expansion of the Ottoman Empire in its history, putting it on three continents and giving it an almost complete monopoly over trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean world. He gives the empire the shape that it will have until World War I. 

Q: What makes him so powerful?

He’s aggressive and willing to use the force of arms to achieve political ends. 

Q: How do women wield influence in the Ottoman royal world?

The women who provide the sultan with heirs have vested interests in their sons because as their fortunes rise, so do the mothers’. They make sure their sons get an excellent education, and they help maneuver them into advantageous positions to take over the throne. And they’re the ones governing in the provinces [as regents]. That’s because their sons are sent off to posts as governors when they’re as young as 8 years old to prove their mettle. 

Q: Do the sultan’s sons compete against each other?

The system is set up so they are all half-brothers, since they have different mothers. It’s survival of the fittest with teams of mothers and sons pitted against each other. The thinking is that a prince who’s able to maneuver, use violence, and be strategic to achieve the throne is probably going to be the best one at the job. 

Q: What’s the overall message of your book?

The major takeaway is that Muslims have actually been integral to our history – in America and in the West – for a long time. This might set the stage for us to see Muslims as something other than enemies, refugees, or terrorists, people that we somehow have to deal with. In fact, they’re integral to our world.

Q: Do you have hopes that conflict between the West and Islam can be overcome? 

There are plenty of examples in the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacting, and the Ottoman Empire is one of them. At the same time that Spain is expelling its Jews and Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire are living quite peacefully with Muslims. I don’t want to say that there were never any discrimination or acts of violence against religious minorities. But they have communal rights, and they have access to their own legal systems and courts. The empire was able to manage this vast difference and diversity for hundreds of years.

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